What should you know about how beef travels from pasture to plate? I was invited by the editor of CNN’s Eatocracy to share a few of my thoughts on what a farmer wants you to know. This entry was originally published on CNN Eatocracy on June 15, 2012. Click here to see all of my CNN articles.
No bull – what a farmer wants you to know about how beef gets to your plate
How does our beef travel from pasture to plate? Can you describe this process from the time a calf is born to the moment your knife slices a steak?
In this country, we are blessed with a great group of farmers who care for their animals and a food safety system to ensure things work properly. There are farmers who do things in various ways for good reasons for both their customers and their farms. A good balance of science and communication can go a long way in sustaining this process.
Let me go ahead and put it out there: modern farming has been under scrutiny of late from animal rights organizations, mainstream media journalism, and consumer groups. There is a gap of understanding between what happens on the farm and how the customer perceives it. Farmers make up less than two percent of this country’s population and we are partly to blame for not keeping you, the customer, informed on how our food is grown, what the impacts are on food and the environment, and why it is grown that way.
I come from a family farm in Arkansas. I was raised with cattle in lush, green pastures. Fresh eggs were collected from the barn, vegetables came from the garden, and I fed a few pigs and calves to have meat for my family’s table. This may sound like a historical account of farming, but in reality, this describes most modern farms. According to the Cattlemen’s Beef Board, 97 percent of cattle farms in this country are family-owned and operated.
It would have been easy for me to stay in my own little corner of the world and assume raising cattle was only the way I was taught. I did not know it when I left home for college, but I was on my journey to learn how cattle are raised across the country. I worked for a ranch in Wyoming where cattle were marketed for natural beef programs, and for a variety of farmers in Oklahoma and Arkansas where farming is not their primary occupation. While in Texas, I worked for two of the largest cattle feedlots in the country. There is a multitude of different places out there, all with different ways of managing cattle. With my experience has come a great deal of learning.
First: raising cattle is a lifestyle for all of these folks, a family affair in most cases. Farming takes hard work, dedication, and passion for that work. Raising cattle can be far from the romantic image of cowboys on the range huddled around the campfire or grandmother’s farm with a red barn and chickens in the yard. We still have the same goals and values of raising animals and producing food, but there are many tools that allow farmers to do their job more efficiently. It is because of the modern farmer’s work today that most Americans can pursue their own ambitions and many choose them off the farm and outside of the home, make many advances in a modern lifestyle and not have to worry about hunting and gathering food for the family.
Second: raising cattle must be economically sustainable. Large or small, farming is a business, as well as a lifestyle for most of us. Farmers have families to feed too. Some get wealthy in agriculture, but most do it because they are passionate about rural America, producing food for their communities, and working alongside families. We choose to provide food on the table, provide proper care for our animals, and improve our environments.
We lose thousands of farmland acres each year to competition from urban development. Farmers have learned to become more efficient by embracing technology and better management tools to produce more beef on fewer acres. In doing this, we have also improved our environment by reducing our carbon footprint by 16 percent since 1977.
My journey has also taught me that farmers are not perfect. Most all the people I have met are genuinely good people, but we make mistakes. A good farmer learns from those mistakes and improves upon them. There are bad apples out there, as there are in any way of life. Farmers do not accept the cruel treatment of animals. We should not allow cases of animal cruelty or journalism’s portrayal of such acts to reflect on the entire farming community.
Many people in America today trust farmers, but not necessarily modern farming practices. I am here to encourage you to get to know a farmer, not just one, but farmers from a variety of places. We are people who do our grocery shopping in town and take our kids to ball practice just like many of you. The future of food and agriculture relies on a new generation of farmers. Will you shun them and tell them what they are doing wrong or join a discussion to learn about how food is grown and what we can do to make things better? If you do not know how to find them, I would be glad to help through the social media networks I have built. There are lots of us willing to have conversations about how this works.
Farmers need to do a better job of reaching out and listening to your concerns, our customers, because your opinion matters. Get to know where your food comes from. Do not tell farmers what they are doing wrong; rather ask what it is farmers do, let farmers ask questions, and in the course of conversation there will be a better understanding on both sides.
I want to again give a huge thank you to the editor for allowing me to share a few thoughts on what a farmer wants you to know. I’ve been blogging hard for a few years now. It’s nice to have an opportunity to share outside my normal audience once in a while. Use this as an example of the possibilities of your agvocacy efforts. Your efforts may go a while with few responses, but you never know who will see them, or what small comment will make a difference. Keep sharing your story and listening!
What would you like customers to know about raising livestock animals for food?
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